Black History and Women's Timeline: 1950–1959

Rosa Parks gets fingerprinted

Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Black women are an essential part of our collective history. The following is a chronology of events and birthdates for women involved in African American history, from 1950 to 1959.

1950

Gwendolynbrooks.jpg
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1985.

Gwendolyn Brooks becomes the first Black American to win a Pulitzer Prize for a book of poetry titled "Annie Allen." The author, poet, and educator, well known for such poems as "We Real Cool" and "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed" pens more than a dozen collections of poetry and prose as well as one novel during her career. She will also be appointed Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois in 1968 as well as a distinguished professor of the arts, City College of the City University of New York in 1971, become the first Black American woman to serve as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1985, and be inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1988.

January 16: Debbie Allen is born. The choreographer, actor, director, and producer will serve as a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, after being appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001. Allen will also direct, produce, and appear in dozens of television shows as well as TV and theatrical films, including "Fame," "Ragtime," and "Amistad."

February 2: Natalie Cole is born. The singer and daughter of Nat King Cole, will appear in nearly a dozen films and win nine Grammy Awards, but her best-known song is a duet with her father on the song "Unforgettable"—long after his 1965 death—which will sell 7 million copies and win three Grammy Awards in 1992.

April 9: Juanita Hall becomes the first African American to win a Tony Award for playing Bloody Mary in "South Pacific." Hall will go on to portray "the proprietor of a Caribbean brothel in House of Flowers (in 1954)—by the unusual team of Truman Capote and Harold Arlen," according to Masterworks Broadway, which adds: "In 1956 Hall (will play) Narciss in The Ponder Heart, a play based on Eudora Welty’s story of the same name, and in 1958 she (will return) to Rodgers and Hammerstein as a member of the original cast of Flower Drum Song, playing the sly Madam Liang."

1951

Althea Gibson Competing in Tennis Match

 Bettmann / Getty Images

In June: Althea Gibson becomes the first Black American to play at Wimbledon. She has already won several ATA women's singles tournaments and will win that event 10 years in a row, from 1947 to 1956. Also in 1956, Gibson will win the French Open and tour the world as a member of a national tennis team supported by the U.S. State Department. The following year, in 1957, Gibson will win the women's singles and doubles tournaments at Wimbledon, a feat for which New York City will greet her with a ticker-tape parade. Also in 1957, The Associated Press will name Gibson as its Woman Athlete of the Year.

July 15: Mary White Ovington dies. The social worker, reformer, NAACP founder, and close colleague and friend of W.E.B. Du Bois founded the Greenpoint Settlement and Lincoln Settlement, both Brooklyn, New York, facilities designed to provide education and social support for the local community.

February 28: Linda Brown's father, Oliver Brown, aided by the NAACP, sues the Topeka, Kansas, school board because she had to travel by bus to a school for Black children when she could walk to the segregated school for White children only. This would become the Brown v. Board of Education landmark civil rights case.

1952

university of alabama
The University of Alabama.

Ttownfeen / Wikimedia Commons

In September: Autherine Juanita Lucy and Pollie Myers apply to the University of Alabama and are accepted. Their acceptances will later be rescinded when the university discovers the two are Black. They will take the case to court, and it will take three years to resolve the issue. Lucy will finally enter the University on Feb. 3, 1956, as a graduate student, but she is barred from all dormitories and dining halls; riots break out on campus three days later.

The university will later expel Lucy in March 1956, claiming she had slandered the school. In 1988, the university annuls the expulsion and Lucy returns to school, earning a master's degree in education in 1992. The school will even name a clock tower for her and feature her portrait in the student union honoring her initiative and courage. Myers, however, is rejected for admission by the university as an "unsuitable" student because she has married in the interim and conceived a child. She will never attend the university.

1954

Dorothy Dandridge

Silver Screen Collection / Contributor / Getty Images

Norma Sklarek becomes the first Black American woman licensed as an architect. She will also become a licensed architect in California in 1962 and gain fame as the designer of the United States Embassy in Tokyo in 1976 and Terminal One station at the Los Angeles International Airport in 1984.

January 29: Oprah Winfrey is born. She will be the first Black American woman to become a billionaire and to host a nationally syndicated talk show. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" will air from 1984 until 2011 and be seen by an estimated 30 million viewers a week in the United States in more than 110 countries. Winfrey will also go on to become a major entertainment entrepreneur, appear in several films—such as "The Color Purple" and "Beloved"—start "O, the Oprah Magazine," and establish a website that attracts 75 million page views.

In February: Dorothy Dandridge is the first Black woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, for playing the lead role in "Carmen Jones." The actor, singer, and dancer will also become the first Black woman to grace the cover of Life magazine, release several albums, and appear in dozens of other films.

May 17: In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court orders schools to desegregate "with all deliberate speed" and finds "separate but equal" public facilities to be unconstitutional. The ruling will lead the way for the civil rights movement as well as de jure—though not defacto—school integration across the United States.

July 24: Mary Church Terrell dies. An educator and activist, she has been a pioneer in the intersectional movements for civil rights and women's suffrage and an important figure in the advancement of the civil rights cause in the U.S.

September 22: Shari Belafonte-Harper is born. The actress, model, writer, and daughter of singer Harry Belafonte will go on to appear in scores of television shows and nearly a dozen films.

1955

Emmett Till
Emmett Till.

Bettmann / Contributor /Getty Images

May 18: Mary McLeod Bethune dies. She has been a trailblazing educator and civil rights leader, who strongly believed that education was the key to equal rights, founded the groundbreaking Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute (now known as the Bethune-Cookman College) in 1904, opened a hospital, served as CEO of a company, advised four U.S. presidents, and was chosen to attend the founding convention of the United Nations.

July: Rosa Parks attends a workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, learning effective tools for civil rights organizing. Her arrest on December 1 of this year for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, will trigger the 1965–1966 Montgomery bus boycott and become a turning point of the civil rights movement.

August 28: Emmett Till, 14, is killed by a White mob in Mississippi after he is accused of whistling at a White woman. Till's death is brutal, and his killers' acquittal shocks the world, but his lynching galvanizes the civil rights movement as activists dedicate themselves to ending the conditions that led to Till's murder.

Marian Anderson becomes the first Black member of the Metropolitan Opera company. She is also known for her solo performances of lieder, opera, and American spirituals, and her vocal range—almost three octaves—allows her to express a broad range of feelings and moods appropriate to the various songs in her repertoire. She will also break numerous other "color barriers" over the course of her career.

1956

Mae Jemison speaks with reporters at a NASA facility
Mae Jemison speaks with reporters following her selection as an astronaut.

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Mae Jemison is born. A physician and scientist, she will become the first Black American woman astronaut in 1987. After leaving NASA, Jemison will become a professor first at Dartmouth then at Cornell. She will use her knowledge to support educational efforts and encourage curiosity and scientific experimentation.

November 13: The Supreme Court rules that bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, is unconstitutional. The next day, November 14, The New York Times publishes a front-page story on the decision, stating:

"The court affirmed a ruling by a three-judge Federal court that held the challenged statutes 'violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.'"

1957

Daisy Bates holding a sign that reads "God gave his only son for the freedom of mankind, NAACP"
As an active member of the NAACP, Daisy Bates could often be seen picketing and protesting in the pursuit of equality for Black Americans.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Black students, advised by NAACP activist Daisy Bates, desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, under the protection of military troops ordered in by the federal government. The National Women's History Museum notes that as part of her efforts, Bates "regularly" drives the students to school, works "tirelessly" to help protect them from "violent crowds," and even joins the school's parent organization.

April 15: Evelyn Ashford is born. The future track and field star will eventually win four Olympic gold medals and be inducted into the Track and Field Women's Hall of Fame.

1958

Angela Bassett

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August 16: Angela Bassett is born. The future actress will go on to star and appear in such films as "What's Love Got to Do With It" (1992), "Malcolm X" (1992), "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (1998), and "Black Panther" (2018), as well as television shows "American Horror Story," "ER," "The Simpsons," and "9-1-1." Bassett will also win numerous acting awards, including a Screen Actors Guild Award for "Black Panther," 10 Image Awards for various projects, and a Golden Globe for "What's Love Got to Do With It?" She will also receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008.

1959

Lorraine Hansberry 1960
Lorraine Hansberry, 1960. Archive Photos / Getty Images

March 11: "Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry becomes the first Broadway play written by a Black American woman, and Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil later star in the film. Sadly, her civil rights work and writing career will be cut short by her death from pancreatic cancer at age 34.

January 12: Motown Records is founded in Detroit after Berry Gordy defers working for Billy Davis and Gordy's sisters Gwen and Anna at Anna Records; female stars from Motown will include Diane Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight, and Queen Latifah.

December 21: Florence Griffith-Joyner is born. The future track and field star will be the first Black American woman to win four medals in a single Olympics.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Black History and Women's Timeline: 1950–1959." ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2021, thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-timeline-1950-1959-3528310. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 21). Black History and Women's Timeline: 1950–1959. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-timeline-1950-1959-3528310 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Black History and Women's Timeline: 1950–1959." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-timeline-1950-1959-3528310 (accessed July 27, 2021).